Before he died in 1993 at the age of eighty-four, Wallace Stegner was asked what the difference was between his view of the American West and that of Louis L'Amour, the enormously popular pulp western writer. Stegner laughed and replied, "About two or three million dollars."

The question itself, however, was revealing, for Stegner never entirely escaped being considered merely a "regional writer." Though he set novels in locales as varied as Vermont, suburban California, and Denmark, he was in reviewers' minds consigned to the West he roamed in his early years and later described so eloquently.

Identification with a particular region has never been an absolute bar to becoming a national American writer. Mark Twain was never more universal than when he wrote of the Missouri Border Country, William Faulkner when he created Mississippi's Yoknapatawpha County, Sarah Orne Jewett when she described Maine's down-east Country of the Pointed Firs.

But no chronicler of the Far West has been accepted out of the ranks of regional interest and into the national pantheon. That's a shame, for it means that readers aren't as aware as they should be of just how good Wallace Stegner was -- and means as well that the school of "Western Realism" he created with Paul Horgan, Bernard DeVoto, and Wright Morris hasn't assumed its rightful place in the American consciousness. Together, these writers strove to create a fictional West free from the myths of the nineteenth-century dimestore novels, the extravaganzas of Buffalo Bill Cody, and the Hollywood "horse operas." Stegner yearned for the West to have a genuine literary culture -- like the South of Faulkner or the New England nineteenth-century fiction that we've absorbed so fully it seems to express our national soul.

Of course, creating a literary culture is difficult. In Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner, James Hepworth asked the novelist if he thought western America could be fictionalized as the South had been so successfully in the twentieth century. And Stegner answered that the West has little "usable past" and little culture not imported from the East. Unlike the South, the West lacks a "rural tradition with a relatively homogeneous population, homogeneous problems." And yet, like Faulkner, Stegner sired a stable of writers fired with an ambition to chronicle the region and force upon the nation a new and "demythologized" view of the West.

It does not surprise easterners to learn that the modern West is the scene of endless battles over agriculture, water rights, the survival of American Indians, and the use of the three-hundred million acres of public land. But it does surprise them to learn, for example, that the majority of westerners live in cities. And over the last twenty years, the writings of Thomas McGuane, William Kittredge, Terry Tempest Williams, Chilton Williamson, Stephen Bodio, James Welch, Rich Bass, Gretel Ehrlich, Ivan Doig, Teresa Jordan, Mary Clearman Blew, the late Edward Abbey, and many others all reflect Stegner's contempt for the Hollywood myth of the West.

Wallace Earle Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa, in 1909, the second son of George and Hilda Stegner. Hilda, an intelligent but unschooled farmer's daughter, instilled in her son a love of books and learning, while his father (eventually a suicide) was one of those western chasers of get-rich-quick schemes who lack, as Stegner told Hepworth, "stick-to-it-iveness." The anti-individualism of the son's fiction was in no small part inspired by the cautionary tale of his father, who unsuccessfully pursued innumerable legal and illegal careers, from farming to bootlegging to managing a casino.

The itinerant family lived during Stegner's childhood in North Dakota, Seattle, Canadian Saskatchewan, and Montana before finally settling in Salt Lake City when Wallace was twelve. It was there his mother died of cancer and his older brother Cecil of pneumonia at twenty-three, leaving Wallace in young manhood the family's sole survivor.

He always afterwards called Salt Lake his hometown. It was there he had been a Boy Scout, camping in the Wasatch Mountains, and there he attended East High School. A job installing rugs and linoleum enabled him to pay his way through the University of Utah, where he was an English major and saw his first freelance work appear in the nowdefunct Salt Lake Telegram.

The gentile Stegner thrived in Mormon Salt Lake. The Latter Day Saints were, he thought, hardworking, tight knit, and devoted to their families, and they reinforced his developing anti-individualism (though, according to his biographer Jackson J. Benson, he found their religious dogma "preposterous"). In later years, Mormons would praise his books Mormon Country and The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail as accurate renderings of their history and culture.

After finishing college in 1930, Stegner landed a fellowship in the new writing program at the University of Iowa -- where he met Mary Stuart Page, to whom he would be married for sixty years. They had one son, Page Stegner.

The newly married Stegner wrote his first novel out of dire economic need. Seeing in 1936 a magazine ad in which the publisher Little, Brown and Co. offered a $ 2,500 prize in a novel-writing contest, Stegner submitted Remembering Laughter and won handily. For the rest of his life, he followed the strict regimen he had formed while working on Remembering Laughter: four hours of early-morning writing before going off to teach.

In 1945, after a teaching stint at Harvard (where he encouraged the young Norman Mailer), Stegner moved to Stanford, and it was there over the next twenty-six years that he created one of the most influential and sought-after creative-writing programs in the country. Its graduates include Edward Abbey, Thomas McGuane, Eugene Burdick, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, William Hjortsberg, Tillie Olsen, Ernest Gaines, and Ed McClanahan -- and that's not to mention the 1960s bad boy Ken Kesey, who compared studying writing under Stegner to playing football under Vince Lombardi.

But in Stegner's view, Kesey and likeminded students in the 1960s marked the decline of his Stanford writing program. Stegner's influence shows for a careful reader in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and, perhaps more strongly, in his Sometimes a Great Notion. But Kesey was influenced as well by the 1950s Beat writers who thought that spontaneous self-expression was all that mattered in literary endeavor. Stegner, insisting on discipline and hard work and revision, was annoyed by Kesey, who held alternative literary gatherings at his house on Perry Lane in Menlo Park (the beginnings of the psychedelic experiments chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).

Stegner was not exactly a conservative, but rather an old-fashioned -- now out-of-fashion -- sort of liberal. His opposition to the excesses of radicalism on the Stanford campus, together with his allegiance to tradition, the work ethic, and family values, make one pine for the days when liberals stood for such things.

In fact, to read Wallace Stegner -- and to read about him -- is to admire the man more and more. The recently published Marking the Sparrow's Fall: Wallace Stegner's American West, edited by his son, collects twenty-two essays and a novella from different periods in Stegner's long career. About half of the pieces are reprinted from such earlier essay collections as The Sound of Mountain Water and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. The rest appear in book form for the first time.

Stegner's easy, conversational style is notable throughout, and many of the pieces can be enjoyed for their nostalgic accounts of a West that has all but disappeared. "That Great Falls Year" and "At Home in the Fields of the Lord" are vivid recollections of Stegner's childhood in Montana and Salt Lake City. "Xanadu by the Salt Flats" is his humorous account of a summer job in the 1920s at Saltair, the "Coney Island of the West," where the young Stegner hawked hot dogs and swam in the Great Salt Lake: "There is no pleasure quite equal to a hard, salt-coated sunburn."

In three travel pieces -- "Lake Powell," "Back Roads River," and "Back Roads of the American West" -- Stegner writes about the area around "Four Corners," where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico touch. These travelogues through Monument Valley and along the Colorado and San Juan Rivers leave the reader with an intense desire to see these places -- though to see them as Stegner did forty years ago is now impossible. It is this fact that steers the book back from nostalgia to serious environmental polemic in such essays as "The Best Idea We Ever Had" (the national parks), "Living on Our Principal" (the conservation of natural resources), and "Living Dry" (the West's eternal water problem). In "Qualified Homage to Thoreau," Stegner holds the Sage of Walden Pond at arm's length for his canonization in the eyes of the more radical elements of the modern environmentalist movement. Though an admirer of his writing, Stegner sees Thoreau as the first hippie, a self-obsessed enemy of history and tradition, the antecedent of all he found distasteful in the politics and rhetoric of the 1960s.

The new collection closes with "Genesis," an eighty-page novella reprinted from Wolf Willow, Stegner's fictionalized memoir of the windy Saskatchewan plains. Perhaps the best fiction he ever wrote, "Genesis" relates the travails of a group of cowboys trying to save a herd of cattle caught in a ferocious week-long blizzard. Based on the disastrous winter of 1906, which brought to an end the era of open-range Canadian cattle ranching, the story follows men as they move from dull routine to the struggle against lethal weather. Reviewing Wolf Willow, Larry McMurtry wrote that "Genesis" is "as good a short novel as anybody has done about the West, or any part of it." In truth, it ranks with Melville's Billy Budd and Faulkner's The Bear as one of the great American novellas.

Stegner wrote novels, short stories, essays, histories, and biographies, more than thirty books in all. In 1972, despite sometimes shabby treatment by the literary establishment, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, the multi-generational story of the Ward family in the West. The New York Times Book Review, which for years classified Stegner as a western pulp writer, had not bothered to review it, and John Leonard, the Book Review's editor, protested Stegner's award at the expense of John Updike's Rabbit Redux. Similarly, the Times took no notice of Stegner's 1976 The Spectator Bird, which won the National Book Award.

Stegner had come close to a Pulitzer for non-fiction in 1955 with Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, a biography of Powell with an exciting account of his legendary journey down the Colorado and a study of his influence on western demographic, political, and agricultural trends. Stegner may have lost the prize because of the book's acerbic introduction by Bernard DeVoto, which blasted the work of a previous Pulitzer winner. But DeVoto was a strong influence on Stegner's growing environmental awareness in the 1940s. From the bully pulpit of Harper's monthly "Easy Chair" column, DeVoto took potshots at the eastern corporations and western politicians threatening the wilderness West. In 1974, Stegner wrote a biography of DeVoto, The Uneasy Chair, and in 1975 he edited The Letters of Bernard DeVoto.

At the behest of the photographer Ansel Adams, Stegner joined the Sierra Club in the early 1950s, eventually serving on its board of directors. He was instrumental in preserving Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, when the Bureau of Reclamation sought to flood it. But he always regretted not working harder to stop the Glen Canyon Dam project, which inundated that Utah canyon in 1963, creating Lake Powell and depriving the public of a natural wonder that rivaled the Grand Canyon.

Stegner's association with the Sierra Club was not always peaceful. He was disgusted by the hard-left direction pushed by David Brower, the organization's autocratic chief executive, who soon resigned to found the more radical Friends of the Earth. At one point, Brower castigated the author for "wasting his time writing novels when the fate of the planet is at stake." In Stealing Glances, Stegner tells his interviewer:

I am not a good soldier in the environmental armies because I don't seem to work well in bodies with other people. Here's an irony. I'm against individualism gone rampant, but I don't seem to be a very good team player. . . . So in some of the work of conservation, which is by necessity touched with zealotry, I resist, . . . unable to bring much of my thought about conservation into fiction, because I suspect myself when I begin to be doctrinaire.

Unfortunately, this sentiment is not shared by some of Stegner's literary heirs. Bass, Ehrlich, Williams, Kittredge, and many others in the present generation have sized upon the West's endless environmental battles for a topic -- and thereby, in an unconscious and sad ironic twist, resurrected the mythical West that Stegner had tried to abolish. In too much western fiction nowadays, those bent on fighting the ravages of capitalism wear the white hats, while ranchers, miners, loggers, and other embodiments of corporate greed wear the black ones. It is the new horse opera of the West.

There is a flaky New Age sensibility to much of this work. Gretel Ehrlich and Terry Tempest Williams, for example, can't seem to take a walk anywhere in the West without it turning into a mystical experience. I recently heard a radio interview with a well-known regional writer who said it is important to her work to "have conversations with the land." These Zen buckaroos and sagebrush Thoreaus are in the ascendant and have spawned legions of imitators in regional graduate writing programs. They may be the future of the literary West, but they're not what Stegner had in mind.

Stegner does seem to have some genuine heirs, with writers like Chilton Williamson, especially in Roughnecking It, his rambunctious memoir of the late 1970s-early 1980s Wyoming oil boom, and Stephen Bodio, whose Querencia is an extraordinary memoir of seven years in New Mexico.

On the whole, however, the literature of the contemporary West is a literature of liberal arrogance where no conservative need apply. It has begun to dominate culturally the changing region, assisted by public radio and television, green organs like "High Country News" and "Northern Lights," and public money circulating through left-leaning state university systems.

The writers of this literature share a contempt for American history as the villain which has brought us to our modern mess in the West. But anyone who has read Stegner -- Angle of Repose, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wolf Willow, and the Mormon books -- knows that he knew and loved the history of his nation and his region. The fact remains, however, that though he may have found these contemporary writers lacking, they are his progeny: The Literary West is as Wallace Stegner made it.

That's Stegner the teacher and academic manager, of course. Wallace Stegner the writer remains untouched by his students. And it is his books that need to be read and remembered when we form our new national idea of the West.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.